January 19 might be an ordinary day for most, but for some lovers of American literature, tormented writer Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday is reason for celebration.
I have to raise my hand as someone who acknowledges his birthday. He’s been one of my favorite writers since I first read “The Raven” in elementary school and learned more about his connection to Baltimore, where I’m from. I’m no neighborhood Edgar Allan Poe expert, but I definitely search and absorb anything I can about him, falling down a Google search rabbit hole surprisingly often.
Sadly, Poe seems much more defined by his death, a true American mystery, rather than his life. But, I say, the poor guy needed a pulse and a slightly deranged mind to create the masterpieces he did, so why not celebrate his life and his work? Poe lived a far from privileged or luxurious life.
Again, Poe’s life was more than how it ended. Anyone willing to find out the details might be surprised by some fascinating facts. In celebration of his birthday, here are some of the more interesting tidbits I’ve learned about him over the years.
1. He helped write a book about seashells
Yes, the man known for his tragic poems about love and macabre short stories helped write and edit a schoolbook about seashells and mollusks. “The Conchologist’s First Book” was first published in 1839. It was a condensed and cheaper version of a book previously written by Thomas Wyatt. Believe it or not, it was one of Poe’s bestselling works.
2. No one can definitively say how he died
I know I said Poe is more than his death, but the fact remains that no one knows for certain the circumstances of his death. Poe was found delirious in Baltimore in 1849 with his clothes disheveled. He never fully regained consciousness to tell anyone what happened to him. So began the theories and attempts to piece together a diagnosis from his symptoms. Some of the theories of his death include alcohol poisoning, rabies, a brain tumor or injuries from cooping, an early form of voter fraud in which people were kidnapped and forced to vote.
3. He was initially buried in an unmarked grave
Poe was originally buried in an unmarked grave in the back of Westminster Hall and Burying Ground in Baltimore. In 1875, a monument was dedicated to Poe near the entrance of the cemetery, which can be seen from the nearby sidewalk. He was reburied beneath the monument. His wife, Virginia, who was also his first cousin, and his mother-in-law, Maria, are buried with him.
4. He’s one of the most studied writers in U.S. English literature courses
Preply, an online language learning company, analyzed at least 170 English Literature course syllabuses at American universities and found that Poe was the second-most-studied author after William Shakespeare. His work appeared 243 times, according to Preply. I’m not entirely surprised. I loved when Poe titles popped up on my college syllabuses at California State University Northridge. Go Matadors!
5. His parents were actors
Poe didn’t follow in the footsteps of his parents, who were actors, but one can say his writings put on quite the show for the imagination. Poe’s biological father left his family and disappeared, and his mother died before he was 3 years old. Though born in Boston, Poe was raised by foster parents in Richmond, Virginia.
6. A special visitor laid roses and liquor at his original gravesite
Leave it to Baltimore to carry on some of the mystery after Poe’s demise. For years, a “Poe Toaster” would leave a bottle of liquor and roses on the monument marking his original gravesite for his birthday. The visitor, his face obscured, over the years attracted a small crowd of onlookers. The original toaster is said to have died, and there have been several copycats that followed. I kind of like the idea of letting the truth behind the real “Poe Toaster” rest along with the author.
7. He’s credited for writing one of the first detective stories
Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was first published in 1841 in an issue of Graham’s Magazine. The short story follows a C. Auguste Dupin and an unnamed narrator as Dupin solves a gruesome murder in Paris. It’s a mystery that keeps one hooked until the killer is revealed. The short story is widely known as the first modern detective story. Don’t be fooled — the stories of Sherlock Holmes came later.
Happy 215th birthday, Poe.